The Birmingham & Midland Institute was founded in 1854 by Act of Parliament for “The Diffusion and Advancement of Science, Literature and Art among all Classes of Persons resident in Birmingham and the Midland Counties”. George Dixon was the first joint auditor. Actively involved in its affairs for its first months, by 1855 he had stood down in order to travel to Australia and New Zealand on business, returning in 1858.
His name came to public prominence in 1863 in the aftermath of the notorious ‘Female Blondin’ incident, when she fell to her death whilst performing in Aston Park, which had been opened some years previously by Queen Victoria, who was distinctly not amused. George and his brother Abraham sought to put matters right by heading a public subscription list which led to the Park being acquired by the Corporation of Birmingham, and better management.
Here is an image of ‘Madam Blondin’ crossing the Thames two years earlier, with kind permission of Hermine Demoriane. The legend beneath the picture reads:
A rope, across the River wide,
To tall tick poles is strongly tied.
As a bridge the rope she uses.
When she gets across the River
Hearty cheers the people give her.
Shortly afterwards, George Dixon began to make a much more substantial and long-lasting impression on Birmingham, in the field of education. The focus of his attention at this juncture was the Grammar School, the governance of which was to trouble him in one way or another for almost two decades. In effect, the middle classes had hijacked the establishment for the education of their own children, depriving children of poorer parents a place. As President of the Free Grammar School Association he addressed both the Schools Enquiry Commission and the later Royal Commission on Endowed Schools. For a variety of reasons, there was much truth in the 1868 comment that “… the state of education in Birmingham would have been as good at the present time if the Grammar School never existed”.In this regard Dixon earned himself a reputation as a friend of the working classes, a reputation which stood him in good stead in his tussles with Joseph Chamberlain in the late 1870s. For Dixon had a vision that there should be close links between the School Board elementary schools created under the 1870 Act, and the Grammar School, easing the progression of the brighter pupils of the former up to the next stage in his educational ladder.
The image is courtesy of the Governors of the Schools of King Edward VI in Birmingham.
For an overview of the King Edward VI Foundation today, see
Until he was elected to Parliament in a snap by-election in the summer of 1867, Dixon spent much time in the affairs of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, and of the national Association of Chambers of Commerce. One of the issues for which he fought was reform of partnership legislation. At that time, company legislation was in its infancy, and most businesses traded as partnerships. This had its deficiencies too, but significant changes were effected in 1865.
In the mid 1860s he also became embroiled in a debate as to the manner in which clergymen should be appointed to the new (Anglican) churches which were springing up all over Birmingham. At this time, the town had no cathedral, not least because it was part of the diocese of Worcester, and today’s St Philip’s Cathedral was designated a Church. He was opposed to the concept of patronage, preferring instead an approach which was variously described as ‘congregational’ or ‘democratic’.
Meantime, the health of George’s elder brother Abraham, senior partner of Rabone Bros., was failing and it was fortunate that he was in a position to purchase Cherkley Court in 1866 from the administrators of Overend & Gurney, which collapsed in that year. For the next five years a large house was built on the North Downs overlooking the Mole Valley, between Leatherhead and Dorking, and Abraham moved south in 1871. George remained in Birmingham in charge of Rabone Bros., with senior managers responsible for day-to-day management of the business, whilst Abraham continued as a ‘sleeping partner’.